History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
—Maya Angelou

The history of nursing used to be part and parcel of most nursing programs. However, due to a plethora of changes in health care, nursing, and technology, there is little room to include this important content. Today, many nursing programs provide a brief overview of nursing’s rich history because the curriculum is overladen with content. Most historians concur that learning about one’s past history provides one with a greater understanding and appreciation of the issues that inform their current and future practice and policies. The history of the nursing profession is closely intertwined with health care, medicine, society, and public policy. We can see a reciprocal influential relationship between current events and the role of the nurse. Throughout the years nurses have played a pivotal role in the health and welfare of the population across the lifespan, and around the world. Recognizing the significance of the past on our current and future profession, the American Association for the History of Nursing advocates for the inclusion of nursing history in nursing curricula.

Nursing’s history is replete with stories of healing, nurturing, hardships, heroism, discovery, ingenuity, caring, compassion, education, research, and leadership. Historical records demonstrate that nurses have been in existence since ancient times, and their roles have evolved from one of an informal caregiver to the untrained nurse to the professionally trained nurse of today. Although we have made significant advancements along the way when looking back on our history one can see that in some ways nurses of today are not that different from the nurses of the past.

Key Facts in Nursing and Medicine

  • Records from ancient time periods demonstrate that nurses and midwives existed.
  • Hippocrates is known as the founder of medicine.
  • Galen is considered one of the greatest Greek physicians after Hippocrates.
  • Some civilizations used slaves, the poor, or fallen women to serve as nurses.
  • From the 1st to 14th centuries nursing care was provided by unskilled men and women.
  • From the 14th to 17th centuries times were turbulent with unsafe conditions, quackery, plagues, and construction of hospitals.
  • During the 18th century family members cared for most of the infirm.
  • In 1732 an almshouse for the poor and infirm was opened in Philadelphia.
  • Pennsylvania hospital was opened in 1851.
  • 18th century nurses made the following contributions:
    • bed warmers
    • heating pads
    • herbal remedies
  • During the Revolutionary War, General Washington ordered many women to serve as nurses to the wounded soldiers.
  • The Crimean War took place from 1853 to 1856.
  • The American Civil War took place between 1861 and 1865.
  • Florence Nightingale, who many consider the “Foundress of Modern Nursing,” made significant contributions during the Crimean War and influenced medicine and nursing.
  • During the 20th centuries World War I, World War II, the Korean, and Vietnam Wars nurses served to care for the wounded
  • Throughout the 20th century, numerous nursing theorists emerged and made significant contributions in the advancement of nursing science.
  • Three notable 20th century pioneers in nursing education were Lavinia Lloyd Dock, Isabel Hampton Robb, and Mary Adelaide Nutting.
  • Nurse training schools became more formalized after Nightingale opened her first school of nursing and there was rapid growth of nursing schools throughout the 20th century.
  • Beginning in the 1950s, nurses sought to develop their own body of knowledge initially “borrowing theories from other disciplines” and eventually developing and testing their own theories.
  • Throughout the 20th century, myriad professional nursing organizations were created.
  • The 21st century has been a time of continued growth and development of the nursing profession, which is due in part to advances in technology, evidence-based practice, and reports such as the Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing.
Deborah Dolan Hunt, PhD, RN

Deborah Dolan Hunt, PhD, RN

Deborah Dolan Hunt, PhD, RN, is an associate professor of nursing at The College of New Rochelle. She is the author of The New Nurse Educator: Mastering Academe, The Nurse Professional: Leveraging Education for Transition into Practice, and Fast Facts About the Nursing Profession: Historical Perspectives in a Nutshell.
Deborah Dolan Hunt, PhD, RN

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